I used to play many years ago but career and other interests intervened. Then came covid and somehow I got more spare time. My wife has always kept up her skills and lately has been practicing more. This gave us the idea to get a new electric guitar. We have a vintage Martin D-28 and D-35 which are really nice for a certain type music but we've never had an electric.
I'll spare you the shopping we did to say we settled on a Gibson Les Paul "Studio" model with a Fender Mustang LT-25 modeling amp. While this combo seems like a pretty ideal choice for us, I thought people might find our travails in "setup" land to be of some interest.
It started when the guitar arrived from Sweetwater an online music mega-store. Gone are the days when you could wander into a store and play some instruments for fun or serious shopping so we decided on a new model from-the-factory on the theory that you know what you are getting. We've never bought a new instrument but Gibson is a world renowned guitar maker and Sweetwater is also well known.
The Guitar arrived in perfect condition all strung and ready to play but when we plugged it in something sounded, well, off. No mater how we tuned it something sounded wrong. We got the electronic tuners out and sure enough frets didn't play the node they should even when the string was tuned correctly open.
Back to Sweetwater to find out what was going on. According to our "personal sales person" and the Sweetwater tech we needed to "setup" the guitar. Apparently setup is a thing with electric guitars and something that the factory can't or doesn't do well. The tech sent us a setup article and we found a lot of help on YouTube.
There are a few adjustments that need to be set for these instruments, things that affect how it plays in fundamental ways. We had a couple key problems:
- Intonation: The twelfth fret of a sting is supposed to play the open string note but an octave higher. This is because the twelfth fret is 1/2 the length of the string. If you play the open string and the tuner says it is an E, then at the twelfth fret you should also have an E.
- Relief: The curvature of the neck. A little is necessary but too much or not enough will cause problems. Strings can buzz, tuning can sound off, or the neck can be too hard to play.
- Action: The height of the string above the frets determines how much pressure you need to apply. This can be adjusted on the Les Paul with finger nuts at the bridge. This affects play but not the tuning.
- Nut height: At the head end of the neck the string goes over a bit of corian that anchors the head end of the string. The nut is slotted at depth that should give the correct clearance for the first fret. If it is too high the first fret will play sharp and e harder than ideal to play, too low and the string will buzz.
The rabbit hole goes a lot deeper but I'll spare you the minutia. After inspecting the setup factors we found that the relief and action were set correctly. But the twelfth fret played sharp and the first few notes on the neck we also sharp. After watching a bunch of YouTube setup videos we found that this was likely two problems, intonation and net adjustment.
The Les Paul has a Tune-O-Matic bridge with separate saddles for each string. As you can see, each saddle can be adjusted to lengthen (or shorten) the vibrating portion of the string changing the halfway point and therefore adjusting the twelfth fret note. If you lengthen the string the twelfth fret will play lower. Once we adjusted all the saddles all of the twelfth fret notes were spot on. I'm still not sure why the Gibson factory didn't do this but, oh well.
The last setup problem involves the nut. When you hit the first fret, the note is sharp of ideal by too much, more than our Martins. After lots (days worth) of searches the apparent cause is how much the string has to stretch to hit the fret. In fact most of the frets closest to the nut were sharp so this seems to make sense. This will never be perfect but is the most obvious on the first fret (the geometry is left to the reader :-) Many trips to Google found that this is often the case with factory setup Les Pauls. The rationale is that they do not know what gauge of string you will need and a higher gauge will require a taller nut. This geometry sounds dubious but ok.
Unfortunately filing the nut down is a bit scary since if you go too far you need to replace the nut. Yikes - time for a trip to the luthier. Lucky for us Sweetwater offered to pay for the setup.
Update: We took it to a local guitar store where they checked the setup. I had the intonation correct so nothing to be done there, the factory had action and relief set correct but the nut height was indeed too high. A little filing later (with the correct tools) and it now plays perfect. I sent the bill ($50) to Sweetwater so after some futzing all is well.
Buying a New Instrument
I learned a lot going through all this, which was fun, but I'd advise people to plan for setup when they buy. If you are shopping in person make sure to get a free setup from the dealer and test it out with a tuner before you pay for it. Most stores will get the setup right one way or another but it's on the buyer to make sure it happens. Some setup is to accommodate a user's preferences (action and relief for instance) but intonation and the nut adjustment are not, they should be right for the guitar and strings you use.
I still can't play for shit but it's not the guitar's fault.